A young woman bellows into a microphone. Her hand is on her heart and her eyes are half-closed. "We lift you higher Lord, yes!" Behind the woman a large choir sways, booming joyously, extending each word. "Weee exaaaalt theee!" The decorated chamber of the church is enclosed by a high ceiling, creating a vast, expansive space. It's the second service of three each Sunday, and a large portion of the church's 2,000-strong congregation fills the grand room. The sermon begins, given by a guest reverend from the Deep South. He starts mildly then soon his voice has grown to a crescendo, "From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, oh God, you are worthy of our highest praise."
Outside, a smattering of cars drone down Woodward Avenue. A vast six lanes here, it's the city's main north-south artery. The church's façade is the street's most striking feature. None of the scenery attracts any attention from the sprinkling of pedestrians. Just up the street, a few children play on the front steps of a nearby high school. No one is in a hurry. A few people in Sunday dress talk outside the church. The church's front sign, with flashing lights and rotating messages, seems out of place. Its bold letters and bright yellow backdrop instruct passersby to "Give thanks—it could be worse."
Latrell Summers sits on a bench in downtown's business district, waiting for a ride. His family recently lost their west side home to a fire. Now he's living downtown at a mission, trying to find a job and complete his degree while supporting his wife and kids. "You can't find a job nowhere," he says. "Not even working in a fast food restaurant. This is the worst place I think anyone would want to live at this point in time."
"We can be confident that the storms of the past two years are beginning to break," President Obama said in September. The prospect of sunshine seems unlikely in Detroit, though. The city is occupied by hordes of dispirited job-seekers. Its 950,000 citizens remain in what may be economic Ground Zero—a desolate city of vacant lots, overgrowth, and derelict, crumbling buildings. The city's unemployment rate is still steadily increasing, from 22 percent in March to just below 30 percent in August. Detroit's foreclosure rate is also among the nation's highest. In the past 4 years, 67,000 homes have been foreclosed and about two-thirds of them remain empty.
I grew up in southeast Michigan, an hour from Detroit. My mostly-affluent town has also been touched by the recession, but pales in comparison to Detroit. Funded by a grant from my university, I decided to spend my summer wandering the streets of Detroit, speaking to people wherever I could find them—at convenience stores, in churches, on street corners, parks, and restaurants.
Abandoned relics of Detroit's prosperous past remain all over town. As the years pile on, the idle aging structures begin to resemble carcasses—the windows get broken out, scrappers remove copper wire and anything else of value, walls are tagged with graffiti. Some homes are singed with ashes. More common is peeling paint, collapsed front porches, and overgrown lawns. And whether it's a home, business, or factory, the interior is invariably strewn with debris. Among broken glass, garbage, shards of plywood, and concrete is the occasional sign of life—perhaps a shirt, a shoe, or a teddy bear.
It wasn't always like this. During World War II, the city's dizzying industrial output and seemingly limitless job opportunities earned Detroit the label "the Arsenal of Democracy." But as manufacturing jobs began to move out of the city in 1950s, racial hostility exploded—a positive feedback cycle that sparked the riots of 1968 and an exodus of wealth. Sixty years of population decline (from almost 2 million in 1950 to about 950,000 in 2009) and a withering industrial job base have left the city with a tax intake so meager that it struggles to perform basic tasks, like collecting trash and answering police calls.
As blight and flight advance, sections of the city have acquired an apocalyptic emptiness. Many long-forgotten businesses still have slogans, prices, telephone numbers, and hours of operation posted in the window or painted on building sides. The city government rarely cuts the grass anywhere, so nature begins to reclaim unused spaces. Parks and vacant lots have become prairies, wildflowers growing to eye level. Empty houses are slowly consumed by trees. Sometimes, fallen lampposts and trees lie in the street. There are intersections with traffic signs long gone. Potholes pepper roads, weeds fill sidewalks, and trash lies everywhere. In the midst of all this, Detroiters make their life. People walk by ruins and pay them no need. The homeless have converted old warehouses into "abandominiums." Buses of commuters roll through desolate neighborhoods with few buildings and fewer people.
"They put a ad in the paper for a job—got an opening for five people. Or two people. One person. You got a line a half a block, two blocks, three blocks long. What do that tell you?" William Scott sits in a folding chair outside the clubhouse of a black activist group. He's a retired auto worker. "There don't seem to be any way out, for the majority of people."
Even a statistic as eye-popping as 29 percent unemployment hardly does the situation justice. There are panicked jobs searchers at every turn—people looking for any possible means to support themselves or their families. Corey Rogers is a young graduate of Wayne State University, struggling to find work. "It's hard, know what I'm saying? It don't matter what kind of degree you got, it don't matter what kind of certificate you have, it don't matter if you graduated from somewhere. It's hard just to be anywhere. It's with everybody." Carolyn Richards used to work for a small auto parts supplier. "I've been unemployed for four years now," she says standing at a hot dog stand outside a convenience store. "Sometimes it gets so tight where you have to make a choice between paying rent or paying the light and gas bill and buying food or medication," she says.
Roy Garder sits at a bus stop. He's about 30. Unemployed. "It's hard out here. Right now, I'm walking around trying to sell a bus ticket, you feel me? There's a shortage of jobs. There's not enough for everyone. Detroit is dying." Jaylon Smith, a large and youthful 40-year-old, is the owner of a small business in the district known as New Center. When I approach him in his store, he quickly turns the interview on its head. "So do you have any solutions? Do you suggest anything to make things get better? I mean what do you suggest?" He speaks eagerly. "Have you heard of any plans of what they have in Lansing, you know, what they might come up with? To help, you know, the citizens of Detroit or the people or Michigan? You heard anything?" I tell him all I know of is the federal stimulus plan (by May, Michigan had put more than $4 billion in stimulus money to use). His response: "So, yeah, when is the stimulus comin?"
"Somebody said we are really in our last days. We got three more years until Jesus comes." Jermaine White has been in Detroit for over 20 years, dipping in and out of prison and homelessness, struggling with HIV and addiction. One afternoon, he suggests I accompany him as he panhandles. We trudge to and fro, visiting different downtown stoops and street corners. It begins to rain. Jermaine leads us under the awning of a gas station where we wait a few minutes before being politely told to leave. Watching cars come and go, Jermaine explains his invention. It's a clever idea that would prevent drinks in cars from spilling."Yeah, that's my ten billion dollar idea. I just gave it to you." I told him I wouldn't steal it.
"You can. If you do make some money, come find me and give me some. You in school already, you goin there. I might die. You know what I mean? It's good to leave an idea with a young individual."
Jermaine and I roam downtown. "Oh, samples." Outside a store, a woman in an apron holds a tray and talks on a cell phone. We each grab a plastic condiment cup full of fancy gourmet popcorn. I take cheese, he takes caramel. After dumping the bite-sized offering in his mouth, Jermaine tosses the container onto the sidewalk. I hesitate. He laughs. "I do that because people that work down here, it keep them a job. That way the guys that work in the Clean Downtown trucks, they always have a job."
The Clean Downtown crew is a common sight. Groups in neon vests with trash claws and dustpans scour downtown and the cultural district for litter. Jessie Hughes and Julius Roosevelt are two of them. They're both young African Americans. On a Friday morning, they sit outside a gas station, munching snacks on break. "There's no money here no more. I mean you might find a good job, but like me, I'm a guy that came from prison, I got like four felonies and it's hard for me to get a job. So every job I get I try to stick with it."
Jessie Hughes looks into the distance as he talks. He and Julius express gratitude that their jobs with Clean Downtown provide a reliable 40 hours a week. But they only make $7.40 an hour and the future is uncertain. "It's only temporary, that's the problem. So we don't know if we gonna end up not working in a couple weeks or so. It's a toss up."
Julius speaks rarely. He eyes me with what I interpret as hostility. "It's stressful. It sends you into like a depression, cause you know you can't get the money to pay your bills or you get kicked out of your place or you can't afford to eat, to buy soap or other hygiene materials."
I ask if there are any prospects for change. They would need to bring more jobs to the area, Julius says. Some people don't have cars to drive out to the suburbs for work, so they need to bring more jobs into the city. Then maybe things would get better. "I don't see it changing anytime soon," says Jessie. "Best thing I can say is, the only way it will get better is to leave Michigan."
Outside a liquor store, Richard Jones perches on a newspaper vending box. His back rests on a telephone pole. There probably hasn't been a paper in the dirty, rusted box for a while. The current crisis has darkened the cloud over the city, but the storm was already raging decades before. A million people trapped in a slow-motion hurricane. "So, has your life changed at all since the economic crisis?"
"Hell naw! It's the same shit. It was a economic crisis all the time. Shit, ain't nothing changed, except about getting poorer and poorer. Shit, I been unemployed for years. I'm homeless, cold, broke, sleeping in vacant houses, in the field, everything else. I ain't got nowhere to stay. I'm just out here trying to survive."
When the recession pushed the U.S. unemployment rate to nearly 10 percent in 2009, Detroit had already been a city of crumbling buildings and scanty municipal services for some time. The city's one-in-three poverty rate was nothing new. And when the nation's economy was relatively worry-free in 2005, unemployment in Detroit was above 14 percent.
Marcus Clark sells hot dogs outside a convenience store. "I worked in a hospital, but they cut back so much in the hospital, I had to resort to this to pay my bills," he says. He cooks the dogs mutely and greets each passerby; most return the greeting and continue on their way. "Some days I may sell ten hot dogs, some days I may not sell anything. Like right now, I haven't sold anything. What to do, I don't know…. I make my own money every day, but I don't make $80 or $90 dollars in a day. I make $30, maybe. Maybe $20. That's about it. You know people they think it's the end of the world. This is why it's bad. People say tomorrow never comes. So you deal with today, and that's it."
The Cass Corridor is notorious. In the shadow of downtown is a neighborhood centered around Cass Avenue. In the 1970s, it was rumored that the gang Young Boys, Inc had a cocaine business in the Corridor that rivaled auto giant Chrysler in daily revenue. Now there's not much left. In some sections, even buildings are scarce, sticking out among blocks of overgrown grass scattered with trash. Auto traffic is sparse on the wide streets. Many of the buildings are rotting hulls—plywood covering windows, stoops scattered with debris, siding stripped to expose wood frames. Others are simply vacant. Entrances are bolted, For Sale signs are yellowing, and graffiti marks walls. The skyline is dominated by two beige skyscraper shells, looming over the neighborhood. The endless rows and columns of windows are all shattered.
People remain. Crowds center around the new Neighborhood Service Organization, the liquor store on Cass, Cass Park, street corners, and houses. The occasional lone pedestrian wanders by. I meander down a narrow dirt path, cutting through a vast field of overgrowth, with waist-high plants leaning in over the thin trail. The vegetation covers almost the entire block. To the right is a basketball court. A dozen or so rusted, teetering hoops surround weed-encrusted cement. On a bench in the distance, someone sleeps.
"This used to be a city park. Clean. But you notice the city ain't even trying to come cut this grass," says Robbie Stanfield, a volunteer at a local soup kitchen. The 50-year-old man has brought me on a bike tour of the Corridor. William Scott, outside the activist clubhouse, surveys the desolate neighborhood on the other side of the road. He describes a trip into the suburbs to a county commissioner's meeting, with a fellow activist and his grandson. When they reach their destination, the child turns to him with a question: "On our way out here, I didn't see but one or two holes in the street, no paper hardly, and the grass was cut. Why is that?"
"Really, I didn't have a good answer to give him. I just told him 'In the suburbs, politicians that's in office care about the city.'"
Beyond the playground-turned-prairie is a onetime warming center for the homeless. Robbie Stanfield stops his bike. The building is shuttered now and its colorful layers of graffiti are curiously beautiful. "They done burnt it up. I done slept up there many a time. Some of the clients was probably not treated fairly and this is how they retaliate." The Cass Corridor remains a hotbed of drug use and violence and Robbie points out an incongruity. As we bike down the street, he asks: "Have you seen a police officer in the two hours since we've been riding? Not a one."
Since 1990, the city has cut almost 2,000 police officers from its budget rolls. Jonelle Troy, a young woman working in retail, called the police on behalf of her employer to inspect an abandoned car left in their lot. They explained they would send someone over within 24 hours, but no one ever showed up. "That means you don't give a shit, and that's just bein honest. You don't care."
Richard Jones points across the street from his newspaper box. "Look at this shit, man. Look, the city ain't been through here cuttin no grass. Look around. All the houses is vacant, tore up, board up, burnt up, you know." In theory, the city government tears down any abandoned building beyond repair, but the reality is, of course, different. In 2005, the city had over 12,000 abandoned houses.
"Look at the grass, ridiculous man. Now go across 8 Mile, I bet you don't see none of that shit. You gonna see nicely trimmed lawns, houses." 8 Mile Road separates Detroit from the suburbs immediately to the north—Southfield, Oak Park, Ferndale, Warren. On the Southeast side, anything north of Mack Ave is in Detroit and to the south is Grosse Pointe and Grosse Pointe Park. Along the bottom of the West Side, Warren separates Detroit and Dearborn. Telegraph Road divides much of the Northwest side from the suburbs. Drive these roads long enough, and a pattern will begin to emerge.
"Over there, they got trash receptacles, they got trees. This," Scott Payton turns his finger back towards Detroit, "has got a liquor store." Payton is a white college student who lives in one of the city's more prosperous neighborhoods. We roll west along Mack at dusk in a minivan. He points out the window to the right, and then to the left. "This is Detroit, that's Grosse Pointe." On the right, there's a building with a caved-in roof, splinters of wood pointing haphazardly towards the sky. On the left is a family-style restaurant with a colorful front veneer.
"I want to show you one more thing before you go," Jermaine says as we return from the panhandling session. "I want to show you how they treat us out here." We're downtown. He leads me past a popular hangout spot for the homeless, and into an alley. It's dark, the sun barely shining in from 30 stories above. The typical alley characteristics are here: dirt, goo, undefined mess. It's completely empty, except for a dumpster. "I wanted to show you what people are forced to do because of the lack of public restrooms. Look." Beginning to the right of the lone dumpster and extending outwards is a series of faded marks on the wall and ground. The splatters and drips of shit stains give the concrete a brown tint. "This is a violation of people's human rights. We're like dogs to them."
Finding a bathroom in Detroit is exceptionally difficult. Businesses in all urban areas often close their gates to the public in an effort to reduce the presence of undesirables who don't possess their own means of relieving themselves. Jermaine leads us back out onto the street and apologizes for the repulsive scene he just showed me. We walk north up Woodward, along a stretch of newly-opened businesses catering to young, entrepreneurial newcomers. "All these stores are responsible for human rights violations." Jermaine turns towards them. He cocks his head back, hurls his pointed finger in an arc along the line of chic restaurants and lofts, and bellows: "All these businesses are liable to be sued."
"So, what was it like to lose your house?" I ask the man who wants to be called Kool-Aid. He gazes upward and puts his hand on his chin. "What was that like?… What was that like?…" He fixes his eyes on mine. "The best way I explain what it was like to lose my house," he shapes his finger into a gun and points it at me. "Empty your pockets right now, and if you don't, I'm a kill you." He holds the pose for a moment, his face even.
William Scott leans back in his sturdy folding chair. He says: "The state and the metropolitan area is constantly trying to take over and take things away from this city. Seems like everybody's against us. [Former] Governor Engler, in my opinion, he did everything he could to kill Detroit."
Spike continues his rant, whipping his hands in circles. "They always talking about what they gonna do for the city, but every time I look up they either stealing something or you know, they on some stupid stuff, man. You know, and I'm not saying everybody's like that, but we put people in office and they jack us around, know what I'm saying?"
Marlene Brown, a young homeless woman, talks about the recent development downtown. "None of us can afford to go down there. They're just trying to bring the ones who got the money back to the city. It's not about caring about the people anymore. It's about what everybody can benefit from. 'I build it, I benefit from it. To hell with everybody else who can't afford it.'"
Roy Garder tries to sell a bus ticket. "It don't make sense to me because they foreclose the house, and then it just sit up vacant. So like what sense is that? I feel like it's all a means to have you in debt, I don't know, to have you at the mercy of the government."
Marcus Clark flips a hot dog. He makes an unspecified allusion to recent policymaking: "They ripped the American people off man. It's terrible. Could've did something that change all these people's situation, but they only care about theyself. We have nothing. Nothing. We gotta fend for ourselves."
Jermaine White sits on a ritzy street corner. Regarding the struggles of the affluent: "A lot of black people don't really feel sorry for the economy because the economy wouldn't never been like this if we had kept our fuckin noses away from Iraq."
Latrell Summers, from the bench in the business district: "Far as Bush? He jacked us all the way off. That war in Iraq, that was the worst thing I think could happen to us. Him and Cheney got rich, they straight, so you know, they don't have to worry about nothing else."
Detroiters love their city and they're quick to point out there's more to it than the poverty and violence that make the news. "Detroit is a great city," says Richard Jones. Everywhere, there are homegrown bright spots. Neighbors who watch each other's children when they play down the street. The rec center, shut down by the city but reopened by a local church. Block parties. "Once you get beyond that despair, and you go down neighborhood blocks this summer, you're gonna see people cookin, and hanging out, and just doing what they can in these times where people don't really have money, but they're still giving away and still giving," says one resident. "It's a lot of heart. That's what I want people to know about Detroit. Detroit is a all heart type of place."
Midafternoon. I'm sitting in a lawn chair beside Marcus Clark's hot dog stand. He has sold no more than two or three, for a dollar apiece. He fiddles with the stereo he has set up, changing tracks and CDs frequently. Every few minutes, he wipes his tabletop of condiments, to keep the flies from gathering. He's been doing this for a month, since he was laid off from the hospital. "So far, I don't know. I'm discouraged. You know, I might not wanna do this for long, you know, cause it's not really payin off like I thought it would. So…"
Carolyn Richards, the auto worker looking for a job, is Marcus's friend. Around 3:30pm she arrives with steaming bowls of pasta for Marcus and me. She sits down in the other folding chair by the hot dog stand. Marcus continues his pitches to potential customers and fiddles with the CD player when there's down time. Carolyn leans back, her neck stiff as she speaks. "If it came down to just finances, we would be lost, we wouldn't have anything to look forward to. That's how bad it is. But because we're greater than finances, we wake up with some kind of hope."
Behind her, Marcus chats with an acquaintance. He sells a hot dog to an elderly man. "Family is really important." She and her husband have moved in with relatives. "That's what a lot of families are ending up doing. We're able to do it comfortably. Thank God that we value family. We were raised with this concept: if I have something, you have it. If there's a roof over my head, there's a roof over your head. We value family and life over finances."
Unlike many, she hasn't given up on the economy. "We're looking for jobs every day. We're being re-educated for the current employment state right now. That's where we are. It's very frustrating, but we do it and we do it with this thought in mind: there is a tomorrow. Regardless of what happened today or yesterday, there is a tomorrow."
Chris Lewis is an economics student at American University in Washington, DC, born and raised in southeast Michigan. Photos by Chris Lewis, JB Curio, and Jim West.